Sunday, November 7, 2010

Book Review: "Mindset" by Carol Dweck

I've been doing a lot of different "personal development" things to be more productive -- seeking to do a better job at accomplishing what I set out to do and matching up what I hope I can get done with what I actually get done.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success was recommended to me as offering insight into how attitude and expectations affect what we are able to accomplish.

Indeed, Mindset gave me a lot of insight.  Not just the "uh-huh" kind of understanding one gets from an abstract understanding, but the "Oh my god, I've been sabotaging myself that way for years!" kind of personal revelation one hopes for in a self-improvement book.

After years of investigating the question, "What psychological factors are common to successful people?" Carol Dweck has observed two common patterns:  The fixed mindset and the growth mindset.  She doesn't provide a simple dictionary definition for the two mindsets. Instead she devotes the book to examples describing the actions and consequences of adopting one mindset or the other.

But to give a starting point to understanding the book, I'll summarize the two mind sets as:

fixed mindset: Expecting that success is rooted in innate, unchangeable talent.
growth mindset: Expecting that one can through learning and practice achieve new success.

Phrased that way, one would expect that everyone lives in a growth mindset, because, to some extent we all believe that, with hard work, we can bring success to ourselves.  The important message of Mindset, and probably the reason why Dweck, herself, never provides a simple summary definition, is that in myriad subtle ways, we act from habit and deep seated conviction that success is really about innate talent that we have no ability to control.

For example, a common way of talking about and thinking about star performers on stage, or in sports, focuses on how talented the person is.  We talk about how lucky they are to have gotten to where they are and how we don't have the talent to get there ourselves.  The discourse is much less about the work that went every day into learning the basics, refining the basics, building skill, establishing connections and building a life around that stellar performance.  Dweck invites us to consider that "we couldn't be that star" because we'd not taken the time to do the work, rather than that we have some innate lack that stands in the way.

An example in the book I found particularly relevant personally: I've known for a long time that I have a strong need to "prove myself".  I've had to work through many professional challenges where my need to prove I was right, or my need to demonstrate my ability got in the way of getting the best results for the whole team.  Dweck talks about how people in a fixed mind set can get caught up in proving themselves, in fearing that tomorrow's failure invalidates today's success.  She offers the growth mindset as an alternative that breaks the habit of seeking affirmation, and instead utilizes failure as another part of the process of learning the job and getting it done.

Mind you, knowing I crave affirmation isn't enough to break the habit immediately.  Dweck talks about building new growth mindset habits.  I have made good progress myself, and am more and more often chuckling to myself when, "Whoops, there I go again!" forgetting to embrace failure, or taking a setback personally.

I believe there is something of value for everyone in this book.  I found her analyses that contrasted business and sports teams run by people in fixed versus growth mindsets very interesting.  I found her description of the teacher with the powerful growth mindset approach to teaching special needs children inspiring.

Dweck gives detailed examples of how to be happier and live life with greater ease by building a growth and learning oriented habit of mind and action.  It is worth your time to read this book.